Can Canada avoid being 'trumped' on the environment?

Can Canada avoid being 'trumped' on the environment?

This is the first in a series of blog posts on Canadian environmental protection in the face of political transformation in America. I confess that though happily Canadian for nearly fifty years, I was, as they say, born in the USA.  

The election of Donald Trump is unlike any change in American history. It will transform America’s role in world politics. It is my view that Canadians should not pretend otherwise (however polite our government might choose to be in the diplomatic realm).

Inevitably these essays will be some what speculative. No one can predict exactly what will change and how. Nonetheless, Canadians urgently need to anticipate how to respond.

To begin, while environmental protection has been contentious in the US recently, historically America has been an environmental policy leader. In the 19th century, it created the world’s first National Park. In 1969 it invented environmental impact assessment (via the National Environmental Protection Act). And, US 1970s air and water pollution legislation was a significant achievement as was President Obama's role in bringing China around on climate action. Finally here, America’s role in the recent Paris Accord was crucial.

All of these achievements are now threatened. Indeed, it is already clear that other nations must now assume the global environmental policy lead.

Trump’s environmentally consequential cabinet portfolios feature nothing but deregulators and climate deniers. Rick Perry (the new Secretary of Energy) once advocated closing the department. He was also unaware, for example, that the department manages America’s nuclear arsenal. Scott Pruitt (Environmental Protection Agency) opposes almost everything the environmental agency has ever done. Ryan Zinke (Interior) doesn’t propose selling national parks and lands but is fine with extracting their resources. Zinke’s political campaigns were funded by fossil fuel interests (who directly hold the key cabinet position of Secretary of State). What do such appointments mean for Canada’s environment?

If US environmental protection is greatly weakened two things will happen to Canada. One, Canadian air and boundary waters (including the Great Lakes) will be more polluted. Years ago, air pollutants released in Texas were found in the Arctic, acid raid in Ontario originated in Ohio and Illinois (and pollution from Sudbury ended up in New England). And two, Canadian regulators and elected officials will be faced with threats from businesses that they'll be 'forced to move south' unless they match American cuts. The only thing preventing a return to 1950s pollution levels might be that industries won’t remove already-paid-for abatement systems.

Other impacts of Trump environmental policies on Canada include accelerated climate change, possible effects on the safety of Canadian food imports and changes imposed on Canada’s economy as a whole by trade renegotiations. Just a sentence for now on food: Are Canadians ready, for example, to see non-organic food imports that contain less stringently regulated pesticides or additives? President Trump has said he wants to remove three quarters of existing federal regulations (without naming a single one).

 In the broadest terms, climate change and biodiversity damage, as well as rising inequality, demonstrate that humankind now shares a single fate. Our global economy has little capacity to achieve common social and environmental policies. Without that capacity, market forces easily overcome democracy. Trump and Brexit are moving us all further from that capacity.

Paul Raskin, in Journey to Earthland (reviewed in the next issue of A/J), argues that effective policies now require global and regional governance and a widely shared sense of global citizenship. Nations, and we as citizens, need the capacity to act globally. Problems do not go away, as Trump would have it, by denying their existence or by blaming every problem on minorities.

Canadians are and should be wary of imagining that we can ‘get along’ with Trump.The better response is to push faster on environmental protection. Our governments should act in tandem with Europe and with resistant U.S. state and local governments. Jerry Brown, Governor of California, and others are undertaking strong alternative initiatives.

We can act as individuals too. Since the election I sucked it up and ordered solar panels for my roof. Many other possibilities exist: for example, skipping a trip to somewhere and spending the money locally or donating a few dollars to social justice or environmental organizations. There are thousands of ways to move the world forward even as Trump moves us backwards. Millions, maybe billions, of people want to do that. We also all need to think hard about how to collectively and politically respond if Trump proves to be as bad as we fear he might. Hopefully, the next articles in this series will add something to that discussion. I welcome your comments along the way.

Robert Paehlke is a professor emeritus at Trent University where he taught environmental policy and politics for 35 years. About 40 years ago, he envisioned a magazine that was both scientifically sound and journalistically interesting, and Alternatives was born. “Bob P,” as we call him, sits on the magazine’s editorial board and he contributes articles and blog posts as often as we can trick him into it.

He is the author of Environmentalism and the Future of Progressive Politics (1989), Democracy's Dilemma: Environment, Social Equity and the Global Economy (2004), Some Like It Cold: The Politics of Climate Change in Canada (2008) and Hegemony and Global Citizenship (2014).  

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